Wednesday, August 30, 2017

No Presents Please, Just Be Present!

At a recent wedding in our family, we had decided not to accept or give any gifts. It was going to be just a civil wedding followed by a party for near and dear ones. There would be no associated ceremonies like cocktails, mehndi, sangeet and the like. In keeping with the small nature of the occasion, we had requested all our guests not to bring any gifts, bouquets or envelopes. 

Today, when most of us are very particular about the kind of clothes we wear, we thought it was not such a good idea to give sarees and shirts of our choice to women and men. Gifting a decorative item for their house would not work too, for the same reason. Moreover, if we gave, we would have to receive too. We were not in favour of that either. So, just to keep things simple, we went ahead with this idea of no-give-and-take and wrote personal messages to our guests to that effect. Also, this was to be our token protest against the custom of gift-giving which has become more of a time-consuming formality, and less of a pleasurable activity in our circles. In some cases, perhaps out of social pressure too. At many weddings, I have seen unhappy recipients criticising the items they have received, only to dump them in the recesses of their cupboards or to recycle them at the next opportune moment. Then there is that ungainly concept of reciprocity lurking behind any kind of gift exchange. We intended to spare ourselves and our guests of all this.

Few wrote back to us saying they respected our wish. Some asked if we would be willing to accept gifts not at the party, but in the privacy of our home. When we said a polite no, they acquiesced with grace. It is not uncommon these days to see invitation cards sporting a line saying something as blunt as "No gifts please" or "Blessings only" to something more creative like "No presents please, just be present" or "Your blessings are the best gift". In many cases, gifts are exchanged privately at home, not publicly at the reception.

Some wondered how they would bless the couple without the aid of an envelope. Just say your blessings aloud, was my helpful reply! But some managed to hand over a gift or an envelope to us at an unguarded moment, at a time and place where we least expected it. A dear friend sent a parcel via post.

We do value their love and blessings, but we wish it came unencumbered, without the baggage of a box, or a packet, or an envelope. My other worry was: how do we prevent those who had respected our wish from feeling awkward if they saw us receiving something from somebody. It would be natural for them to feel bad if we accepted things from others.  Even an innocent greeting card in an envelope would turn heads and raise eyebrows if accepted at the party. It did happen and some people did ask and we told them it was only a card. Now greeting cards are at the boundary line, they are wishes. How can one possibly say no to them?

Our heartfelt thanks to all those who took time to come and personally greet the newlyweds at this important milestone in their lives, and to those who wrote or called to convey their wishes. Special gratitude to those who heeded our request and did not bring anything other than smiles, hugs and good wishes. Thank you so much for supporting our idea and going along with it. Without your support, our idea would not have worked. Your recognition of our plea of no-gift was the best gift to us!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Snapshots From London!

Sharing some recent pictures from my London album. These days, one takes hundreds of pictures when one is on a trip. I did too. Here are a few of them that tell a story or are just a bit different from the rest. Take a look!

I like how the little girl is holding her own in front of the ferocious-looking lion! Look at her posture, spunk and attitude. Did not particularly see her while clicking. Else I would have included her fully in the frame. Was amused to notice her later while looking at this picture. At the Trafalgar Square.

This picture too happened by chance. How interesting that the man and the woman in the sculpture are looking in the opposite direction while their counterparts in real life are facing each other! A nice contrast. At the Buckingham Palace.

Hundreds of lovely ladies and gentlemen waiting outside the Buckingham Palace on a pleasant sunny afternoon. Apparently the Queen had invited them to tea. While the security guards were busy assisting them and maintaining order, the guests were making the most of the opportunity by posing for pictures using the palace as a backdrop. The ladies were at their elegant best flaunting their flowing dresses and flowery hats. The men looked suave in their formal suits. I had no invitation, I just happened to be there and enjoyed watching the spectacle from the sidelines.

Serenity at its best. This lady had found an ideal spot to relax, rejuvenate or reflect on her life. At the Kew Gardens.

I was in a bus going towards the British Museum when this sculpture of the Mahatma caught my eye. I saw what the nearest bus stop was and made a note to stop there on my way back. 

While I was busy taking pictures, a group of people led by a lady descended at the statue. She stood there for a good ten minutes addressing her group, while I waited at a distance not wanting to eavesdrop. At the Tavistock Square.

The dark clouds. The majestic lion dominates the frame, watching the traffic pass by. A contrast between stillness and movement, this makes for an interesting picture, with the red bus so typical of London adding its own charm to the scene. At the Trafalgar Square.

So exhilarating to see the Indian tricolour fluttering gently in foreign skies. The massive building housing diplomats stands gracefully on a leafy street in Central London. I stood there for some time and witnessed a flurry of activity. Officials getting out of a car being escorted inside the building by a young staff member. Noticed that the car had a diplomatic number plate. At the Indian High Commission.

This pair of pigeons was having the beautifully maintained garden exclusively to themselves. The garden was featuring white flowers especially to commemorate Princess Diana who lived in Kensington Palace before her life ended in a tragic accident 20 years ago. She used to spend time in this garden and often talked to the gardeners. A nice tribute to the stylish lady! At the Kensington Palace Gardens.

As I said, most of these pictures were taken without much planning. I discovered these interesting elements only later while looking at them at leisure!

Photos by Lata
I could not have moved around in London without the Underground and the red busses. The bus has already appeared in one of the earlier pictures. Standing or walking on these escalators is an integral part of every Londoner's life. They take you up to the exit and down to the train efficiently and comfortably. Loved the Underground experience!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Stroll Into Summer At Kew!

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, popularly known as Kew Gardens, is a sprawling expanse of green in Southwest London that comes alive in the spring and summer, welcoming throngs of people to its serene locale housing a huge variety of flora. I visited the gardens on a sunny and cool day in June. The weather was perfect for exploring the place on foot. Though, at the end of the day I was left with sore, aching feet, missing several sites that I had meant to go to, but didn't have the time for. Nevertheless, what I could manage to see was wonderfully refreshing and very enjoyable indeed. 

What began as gardens surrounding royal residences several centuries ago is a United Nations World Heritage Site today. Spread over 326 acres, the site has 40 historically important buildings and a collection of over 40, 000 species of plants. It houses an internationally important institute for botanical research too.

Easily accessible by the London Underground, it provides an escape from the hustle and bustle of city life to Londoners and tourists alike. With instructions, maps and directions, the place is very easy to reach for a first-time visitor like me. Having bought my ticket for Pounds 15, I am all set to take in the Gardens. Here are some pictures giving a glimpse of my visit. They are not necessarily in any order, just enjoy them!

The Gardens are a short walk away from this lovely little station. A signboard at the station invites visitors to "Stroll into summer" at Kew. Outside, the street is lined with beautiful houses on both sides. Each house has a pretty garden in front, with colourful flowers and pleasant landscaping.

One of the several splendid paths in the Gardens. One can walk to one's heart's content breathing in fresh air and then take a break on a bench like the one in the picture below, thoughtfully provided all over the park.

I loved the light and the shadows in this picture!

The Treetop Walkway is fun, allowing one to climb 18 metres high into a canopy of lime, sweet chestnut and oak trees for a bird's eye view of the Gardens. There is a staircase and a lift as well.

The elegant Palm House is an icon of the Gardens. You step into the warm and moist interiors to take a look at the tropical plants being nurtured there. The plants look fresh and full of life, in spite of being grown in an artificially maintained atmosphere. Outside, the rose shrubs are in full bloom, adding colour, beauty and a mild fragrance to the surroundings.

Warmer and more moist than the Palm House is the Waterlily House!

Lake and the Sackler Crossing! This is one of the most tranquil sites in the Gardens. The crossing, seen at a distance in the above picture offers stunning views of the lake, trees, sky, and ducks and swans gliding playfully in the waters.

The shapely curve of the Sackler Crossing!

The Rock Garden is aesthetically landscaped. It features mountain plants from six different regions of the world. One can see plants and flowers in abundance that one may never have seen before. 

Photos by Lata
These lovely orchids are on display at the Princess of Wales Conservatory. This large glasshouse contains ten climatic zones. It is home to a huge variety of plant life including ferns, cacti, orchids, waterlilies and carnivorous plants. The sheer variety and arrangement of plants takes your breath away!

There is much more to see and do at the Gardens. This post and these pictures are just a sampler!

Friday, June 16, 2017

"42nd Street" In London's West End!

West End is the Mecca of theatre lovers in London. This beautiful and fashionable area in Central and West London is home to about forty or more theatres that are steeped in the culture and art of this historic city. The impressive buildings with their imposing facades stand with pride, inviting people to experience quality theatre.

I watched a musical, "42nd Street" in Theatre Royal, Drury Lane just a few days ago. Commonly known as Drury Lane, the building is the most recent of four theatres which stood at the same location, the earliest of which was built in 1663. This makes it the oldest theatre site in London still in use.

The building that we see today opened in 1812. It has of course undergone renovations since then. It is a grand structure with opulent interiors. Spread over four tiers, it seats over 2,000 people. It has been hosting long runs of prominent musicals over last several decades. It is owned by noted composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

I caught an afternoon show. The time of the day on a weekday meant that senior citizens formed a major part of the audience. I saw many couples, and single women in groups alighting from their cabs in front of the theatre. Many of them were having a tough time negotiating the steps in the auditorium, but I guess their love for theatre overpowered their discomfort. A large group of schoolgirls was there too, clapping and cheering throughout the performance. 

"42nd Street" is a 1980 Broadway production, based on a 1933 film which in turn was based on a 1932 novel of the same name by Bradford Ropes. The show was a hit, winning several awards in different categories. It is a spectacular offering, with a large cast and energetic dance and music sequences. The opening scene sets the tone for the visual and musical treat that is to follow. First, the curtain opens just enough to reveal a long line of tapping feet and then it rises to show about 50 men and women dressed in bright colours dancing and singing joyously.

The story is about a musical "Pretty Lady" for which auditions are going on. The personal relations between the director, writer, lead performers, new entrant Peggy Sawyer and ageing Prima Donna Dorothy Brock come to the forefront as the story unfolds. Along with the music and dance, there is drama, humour and wit as the extravaganza takes us through the next 120 minutes (150 minutes with the intermission).

The costumes with their feathers and spangles are absolutely awesome. The stage is mostly bare, with very few or no props on it. Backdrops have been used generously to convey change of scene and location. I liked the idea of a small room being wheeled in onto the stage and wheeled out into the darkness in the blink of an eye. Once, a part of a house on two levels was brought in, complete with a working staircase. At another time, the whole stage was taken over by a giant staircase with members of the cast jumping and dancing on it. And the performance is absolutely flawless. Of course nothing less is expected from a long-running and award-winning Broadway show being staged at a prominent theatre in the West End.

It is a delight watching well-known British-American singer, recording artist, and stage and screen actress Sheena Easton play the role of Dorothy Brock, who was a lead star once, but now past her prime. She is domineering, bad-tempered, pampered and tough; but shows her softer side by recognising talent when she sees it. Rest of the cast have done a wonderful job too. 

Photos by Lata

The show features lovely songs. In addition to the songs that appeared in the original film, it includes many other songs that the lyricist and the composer wrote for other films around the same time. I liked "About A Quarter To Nine", "Forty-Second Street", " There's a Sunny Side to Every Situation", and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" a lot. The last one was added especially for Sheena Easton in the 2017 West End revival.

Being part of an appreciative audience is always exciting. But I wonder how much more exciting and fulfilling it must have been for those on the stage who were greeted with loud rounds of applause several times during the show. That indeed is the best part of theatre!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Snapshot From Chennai!

It is a hot summer morning. In Chennai, that doesn't deter people from stepping out. They are busy shopping, running errands, commuting to work, or hawking their wares. Some are walking with umbrellas and caps to keep the sun away.

This is a bustling neighbourhood, the skyline dominated by the ornate gopuram of the ancient Marundeeswarar Temple. A heavily fenced temple tank, and stalls selling flowers, fruits and puja items complete the picture.

Interspersed with the temple scenario are all kinds of shops, restaurants, small businesses, residential buildings, and offices. I am on my way to the bank when I spot a huge orange-coloured figure in the courtyard of the temple. Increased activity and decorations around the area tell me that the temple is hosting some festival. I make a note to come and take a look after I am done at the bank. I have other errands lined up for the morning so it will have to be a brief stop, but I want to do it.

A little while later, I am at the imposing gate of the temple. The large image is set in the entrance corridor. It stands on a platform that in turn is resting on two long horizontal poles. People will lift the poles on their shoulders and take the idol in a procession around the temple. But clearly it is not yet time. The palanquin bearers are waiting on the side, perched on one of the long poles.

Somebody is distributing prasad--that looks like pongal to me--amongst the visitors. Many people are lounging under the brightly painted designs on the ceiling of the corridor. Women in colourful sarees, with fragrant strings of flowers in their hair are buzzing about, gazing in wonder at the pot-bellied idol, collecting the prasad on a leaf plate,or just squatting on the floor soaking in the atmosphere. The men are either in casual wear or veshtis. Two more large idols--one of them is the Nandi Bull--are set on a side. Perhaps they have had their turn of going around on the palanquin, or they will go later.

The whole scene is far removed from the world outside, where it is a normal day and people are at work. This is a tranquil oasis with old-world, unhurried charm. This is quintessentially Chennai, allowing both worlds to co-exist naturally and happily in its bosom.

Resisting my urge to linger for a little longer, I make my way out, but not before taking a picture of the resplendent God.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Revisiting The Kalakshetra Saree

"Art is life. It is character. People think of art as if it were something far away from themselves. You may think of me as a dancer, an artist, but are you not going to be artist also? Have you not some art in you? My idea is that everyone is an artist, for everyone responds to beauty."

Rukmini Devi Arundale

Rukmini Devi is survived by Kalakshetra,  the magnificent academy she founded in 1936 for the preservation of traditional values in Indian arts and crafts, especially in the field of Bharatanatyam. It is a premier institute today, imparting training in classical dance and music to scores of students who go on to become dedicated teachers, researchers and performers of their art, taking it with them all over the world. Spread over a serene campus in Chennai, the institute reflects its founder's views on art and beauty in everything it does. The performance spaces, the classrooms, the lovely kolams, the colourful practice attire of the students, and the overall ambience oozes tradition and beauty.

I have had the pleasure of watching several dance dramas originally choreographed by Rukmimi Devi, and later revived by her illustrious students who are renowned dance gurus now. In all of them, not only the dance steps, but other things like the music and the costumes of the dancers are also presented according to her specifications.

The dance dramas are exquisite, but the focus of this post is on costumes and sarees. Rukmini Devi's aesthetic sense is evident in the beautifully colour co-ordinated costumes, with striking contrasts and unusual combinations. They are always very pleasant, and nothing is ever over-the-top.

Rukmini Devi maintained the same sense in her own sarees. She directed weavers to make elegant sarees for herself, and dance attires for her students. Slowly, a Kalakshetra saree came to be known as a precious possession amongst admirers.

Keeping in mind that textiles were an essential part of her dance dramas, Rukmini Devi had set up a weaving centre in a thatched hut in the premises just a year after Kalakshetra came into being. This not only gave means of livelihood to weavers, it also helped to keep the traditional craft alive at a time when markets were flooded with foreign-made clothes. That small hut has grown into a larger production unit called the Craft Education and Research Centre (CERC) over time.

Recently the CERC has revived some of Rukmini Devi's sarees. They are on view at an exhibition at the CERC until March 25. The original sarees are more than 50 years old. They are also part of the exhibition, neatly spread over white sheets on long tables. Also on view are the recreated sarees. There are 15 looms where inspired by the vision of Rukmini Devi, trained weavers are busy creating masterpieces in pure silk . Those who would like to own a piece of this beautiful heritage, can do so by placing an order for any of the sarees at the exhibition.

Photos by Lata
I am at the exhibition on a bright afternoon. The new sarees, neatly clipped to stands, are fluttering gently under the rotating ceiling fans. An artisan is bent over a parrot woven in one of the old sarees. Armed with a magnifying glass, he is busy transferring the pattern on a sheet of graph paper with dots and crosses. A little distance away, a stunning saree in yellow/orange and magenta is proudly displaying the same motif on its pallu. Besides four parrots, the pallu has two rows of shapely deer. The symmetry, proportions and colour scheme all complementing one another to make an outstanding work of art.

The CERC team is putting in a lot of hard work in creating these sarees. Everything from the yarn, to the zari, the motif, and the colour has to be just right. One feels a sense of loss looking at the original sarees, some in reasonable condition, some tattered. But at the same time, the newly woven creations swaying gently alongside reassure you about the preservation and continuation of this legacy.  

Monday, February 6, 2017

An Evening With "Haathi Mere Saathi"!

I stumbled upon a hit film of yesteryears "Haathi Mere Saathi" (1971) on the telly last night. I have vague memories of having seen it in my childhood. I remember it to be a popular entertainer that most parents took their children to. It was an attractive combo of a circus and a movie rolled into one. Good music, superstar Rajesh Khanna (this is one of his 17 hit films between 1969 and 1971) and the lovely Tanuja added to its appeal.

I watched the film with today's eye that is used to generous doses of technical gimmickry and virtual reality. None of that here. This must have been an ambitious project to undertake at that time because of the extensive use of animals during its making. It is amazing how the numerous scenes have been shot in real time with the four elephants dominating the frames (pun intended!).  In fact, in some scenes you wonder if they were emoting! They walk, run, dance, push and pull a car, cry, perform Ganesha pooja, summon a doctor, engage in amusing tricks and stunts during road shows with their master, and above all; try to save his marriage! Earlier, at the time of his wedding, the feast for the animals was a treat to watch and had me wondering how long it must have taken them to shoot that scene. The elephants, the big cats and others come, take their seats on neatly arranged chairs and enjoy the food served lovingly by their master and his new bride. How cool is that!

I like noticing the actors' makeup, hair and clothes while watching old films. Tanuja with her tight pants and short tops doesn't look outdated at all. In fact, her wardrobe fits well with the current trends. Her hair is another story though. Her makeup could have been better too. Rajesh Khanna wears his trademark guru kurta in some scenes, while in others he wears shirts with a round collar, two rows of buttons and long sleeves without cuffs. Sometimes the shirts are matched with the trousers in bright feminine colours. In one scene he sports a black guru kurta with pink trousers! One can only cringe in horror looking at his wardrobe. In some shots, his shirts are unable to hide his paunch and give away its clear outline showing behind them, a distinct difference from today's actors with well-toned bodies and six-pack abs. The crinkling of the eyes, the bending of the head to one side and shaking it are all very much there. The pimples are unmistakeable (remember the old joke Mummy Dimple, Baby Twinkle, Papa Pimple?) and together with the mannerisms and the wardrobe, make the persona of the much adored superstar.

The film is laced with the usual fare of those days. There is a wicked Munimji, an evil villain, an upright hero with his unusual four-legged friends, a doting dad, and a darling daughter who addresses her father affectionately as "daddy" and asks the hero angrily to "shut up" in their first meeting. The story by producer Sandow M M A Chinnappa Thevar is very predictable, at times jumpy and having loopholes in places. But watching the film more than four decades later, I realize that I didn't notice any of this when I first saw it in a huge cinema hall. I guess, the lure of the big screen, the life-like images of the stars, the dialogue, the music and the ambience of the place was too overwhelming to notice such small details. Also, generally you saw a film only once, so there was no chance of looking at such things later.

The celebrated pair of Salim Javed wrote the screenplay (their first collaboration) but the spark in their talent was yet to appear. Inder Raj Anand's work as dialogue writer is pretty ordinary. Wonder if Salim Javed could have done a better job had they written the dialogue. Laxmikant Pyarelal's music is a winner. All the three duets are sweet and with a lilting tune. For Sun ja aa thandi hawa, they put the lead pair in two hammocks for the entire duration of the song. A novel idea saving them the trouble and the monotony of running around trees. Solos are good too, two happy and a sad one, the evergreen Chal chal chal mere haathi being kids' favourite.

A story has it that Rajesh Khanna used the signing amount that he received for this film to complete the transaction of buying his bungalow "Ashirwad". He did set up his pyaar ki duniya (world of love, also happens to be the name of his zoo in the film) with his family in that bungalow. All those are things of the past now. What remain are such moments that have the power to transport you back to those days!